Joshua Muravchik - Heaven on Earth - The ReAL Review

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Heaven on Earth
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“We are all socialists now,” Newsweek Magazine decreed, celebrating Barak Obama’s Inauguration, so we should at least try to understand the prospects entailed in the editors’ celebration.

Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, c. 2002) is an engaging, historical description of what’s happened wherever it’s been tried. The title comes from Moses Hess, the 19th century “Father of German social Democracy,” who said (in A Communist Confession of Faith, 1846):  “The Christian . . . imagines the better future of the human species . . . in the image of heavenly joy. . .We, on the other hand, will have this heaven on earth” (p. 338). This endeavor—what Muravchik calls “man’s most ambitious attempt to supplant religion” (p. 3)—has everywhere failed, and revealingly (given the glossy advertisements) “socialism’s epitaph turned out to be:  If you build it, they will leave” (p. 6).

Though rooted in the ideology of the French Revolution and its call for equality, the word socialism was first coined by the wealthy English utopian, Robert Owen. He was an atheistic materialist who detested all religion and believed that a good environment would necessarily produce good people. Thus he bought land in Indiana, where he launched “New Harmony” to establish “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” He further determined to eliminate three evils—private property; religion; and marriage—the goal of most socialists (whether totalitarian or democratic) in decades to come.  He then ordered the letters “C.M.” inscribed on one of the buildings, “standing for ‘Commencement of the Millennium’” (p. 55). Within less than a decade, however, New Harmony proved most unharmonious and the community disintegrated, largely because idle ideologues rather than workers joined it.

Though Owen’s New World utopia failed, he helped inspire budding socialists such as Friedrich Engels, who (rebelling against his parents’ devout religious faith) joined Owen in assailing Christianity. Here he was joined by another young German, Karl Marx. Both men celebrated the skepticism of David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus and Ludwig Feuerbach’s atheistic The Essence of Christianity. Muravchik largely credits Engels for the ideology we call Marxism, though he was overshadowed by Marx’s domineering personality.

Few socialists actually read Marx’s Capital, taking their precepts from Engels’ popular writings.  As Karl Kautsky explained, “’Engels stands as a master of popular exposition; his writings are read by all thinking proletarians, and the majority of those who have accepted socialism have obtained their knowledge and understanding of the Marx-Engels theory from these writings’” (p. 91).  “It was to Engels the popularizer that we can trace many of the catch-phrases of Marxism:  ‘historical materialism,’ withering away of the state,’ ‘dialectical materialism,’ ‘scientific socialism’ and, above all, ‘Marxism’ itself” (p. 91).

Various thinkers sought to own the Marxist label, but Lenin most effectively grasped it by calling for a “proletarian revolution” to establish a utopia in Russia. Like Marx and Engels, he was an intellectual with little knowledge of the real workers for whom he struggled to establish a “workers paradise” in Russia. His Italian contemporary, Benito Mussolini, soared to prominence in the Socialist Party and launched a journal called Utopia. Though he broke with his leftist confreres following WWI (preferring dictatorial to democratic methods), his Fascism retained salient socialist precepts. So too Hitler espoused scores of socialist notions and declared that “’National socialism is what Marxism might have been if it could have broken its absurd and artificial ties with a democratic order’” (p. 164).

The totalitarian systems established in Russia, Italy, and Germany manifestly failed.  But softer forms of socialism endure. Before WWII ended, Clement Atlee led Britain’s Labor Party to victory and began the transformation of his country. Atlee’s socialism served as a surrogate for his parents’ Christian faith; it was not, he said, “’ just a piece of machinery or an economic system, but a living faith translated into action. I desire the classless society’” (p. 186). Atlee implemented the socialism advocated for nearly a century by English Fabians (including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb), who had patiently worked to democratically establish their faith.

At the same time, many new nations, liberated from colonial rule, followed Atlee’s approach, effecting what Daniel Patrick Moynihan “dubbed the ‘British revolution’” (p. 199).   Thus Julius Nyerere subjected Tanzania to the Fabianism he’d absorbed while studying in Edinburgh. Lavishly supported by Western philanthropy, Nyerere brought into being a nation wherein everyone was reduced to the perfect equality of utter poverty!  And much the same transpired, uniformly, in the rest of the three score new nations who embraced the socialist creed.

Standing virtually alone in resisting socialism was the United States. Labor leaders such as the AFL’s Samuel Gompers warned against “’entangling alliances with intellectuals who did not understand that to experiment with the labor movement was to experiment with human life’” (p. 232).  He decried laws dictating the eight-hour work day, though he supported gaining that objective in other ways, and he “opposed minimum-wage legislation as well as all manner of government social insurance except to cover physical disability” (p. 241). George Meany also supported the capitalist system that empowered workers by providing them amazing opportunities. (Gompers and Meany, of course, dealt with capitalists producing goods for market; today’s unions, such as the NEA, increasingly represent governmental employees, making them congenitally more sympathetic with the socialist agenda.)

Muravchik ends his presentation with an epilogue: “the kibbutz goes to market.” He shows how the Israeli kibbutzim, so idolized by various socialists, have failed to realize their dreams. For a generation, they usually thrived, but as children grew up they almost always rejected the radical demands entailed in bringing about “socialism’s perennial goal of a new man” (p. 329). So in large numbers they fled to find better lives and traditional family structures in Israel’s booming economy. Following the pattern of 19th century utopias in America, the kibbutzim fell apart on the hard rock of human nature.

A great American historian, Eugene Genovese (who was himself a Marxist for most of his life), says, in a blurb for this book: “Socialism has been a story of nobility, heroism, and self-sacrifice—and of self-delusion, absurdity, and murderous criminality. Joshua Muravchik provides a thoughtful account, at once objective and personal, in which he—miraculously—manages to eschew polemical point-scoring and holier-than-thou trumpeting. This sprightly and moving book combines warm sympathy with tough-minded criticism to help us understand the greatest tragedy of our age.”


Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.